Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sometimes life surprises you.

I met Ricardo nine years ago.

Ricardo and me on Monday night

It's funny how Facebook brings people together. There are so many people I would have lost touch with if it weren't for Facebook, and for that I'm really thankful. Ricardo is one of those people.

Ricardo and I met in the strangest of places: at the Federal Correctional Institution in Miami, Florida. I was 22 and on a fellowship teaching Poetry/Creative Writing in prisons around the country, and I was so excited about what I was doing. I've never felt like I had more purpose than I did that year teaching in prisons and jails. I had spent the first third of my fellowship year at San Quentin State Prison out here in the Bay Area, was teaching at the FCI in Miami for the second third, and later headed off to New England to spend the last third of the year teaching at various prisons and jails in Vermont.

Often, when you're a teacher, you have a student whose passion and aptitude is far above the norm. That student stands out as exceptional: an exceptional learner, an exceptional person, any kind of exceptional, really. Ricardo was all of those things. He had never written a poem in English before taking my class, and before I knew it, he was writing sonnets and sestinas and villanelles with amazing fluency and skill. It was so inspiring, and I was so lucky. When I left the federal prison in Miami, I was really sad that Ricardo wouldn't have a poetry class anymore. I knew how much it meant to him.

Given that he had four more years in prison and I'd moved across the country, we lost touch. I often wondered how he was doing, though: if he'd found a good job, how his family was, if he'd stayed out of prison. And then one day last fall, I got a Facebook friend request from him. It was so nice to hear that he and his family were doing wonderfully: he had a successful business, a great wife, and was expecting his third daughter.

This past week, Ricardo and his beautiful family were visiting California. They all came over for dinner on Monday night, and you'd never know it had been nine years since we'd seen each other. We shared food and wine, reminisced about our poetry class, and talked about our lives.

Ricardo, his wife Maryzol, me, Matt, & their middle daughter, Alex

When they left, Matt said to me: "Wow, they're an incredible family." Their love and openness is palpable, their daughters are beautiful, and I'm lucky to have them as friends.

So many things have been swirling around in my head since Monday night. Among them:

*How many people would write Ricardo off because of his time spent in federal prison?
*In this vast and changing world, how unlikely that Ricardo and I would get the chance to reconnect almost a decade later, across the country from where we first met?
*Although he and I only knew each other for four months back in 2004, isn't it amazing how much that class meant to each of us?

It's students (and people!) like Ricardo that make it all worth it.


My Days Have Fifteen Minutes
                Ricardo Martinez, FCI Miami, 2004

The line of men waiting for an empty phone
gets shorter with the passing of each instant:
my sunrise is near. I can already hear some daring
birds chirping and flapping their wings in the dawning sky,
as they greet friendly branches in their journeys

through different trees. The sun begins to show its glittering
crown, just when her infant voice glides through the telephone
line, penetrating my left eardrum, like nourishing
seeds entering a nightingale's beak. She calls me papi, 
and then she mumbles some words, which meaning

I can hardly decipher. I hear about the last, risky
adventures of Mulan, as the sun marches swiftly
through its usual path. We sing together "El Payaso Pimpim,"
the infant tune about the famous clown who pinched
his red, bulging nose to make children laugh; our voices

embracing each other, as they travel toward
their longed-for destination. A recorded female voice
interrupts us to remind her that the caller
belongs to a federal prison: This is no longer your dad,
she would interpret if she were a year older. 

It's noon when I ask for a kiss; my mind quickly picturing
her tiny, wrinkled lips forming a microscopic circle,
inhaling a small quantity of air, as a kissing sound
breaches my ear's spiraling grooves and takes a dwelling
in the silkiest fiber of my heart. A beeping sound

reminds me that the call will end in less than a minute,
as I gaze at the sun's face hiding behind the highest mountain,
like a murderer who can't stand the accusing glance
of the victim's relatives. I hear her tender voice
reminding me that she loves me, te quiero papi; 

her innocent mind unaware of the unwelcome nightfall 
that approaches to engulf us in its gloomy shadow.
Only when I say goodbye does she realize that my day
is ending. A weeping sound escapes her mouth, escorting
the only word I wish would not exist in dictionaries:

Nooo, she cries, as the unmerciful phone line
leaves us speaking to ourselves. 


Micaela said...

I know I already said this on Facebook but I have to say it here. What a beautiful story, what a beautiful family.

I have goosebumps from reading that incredible poem. Every part of it touched my heart.

Claire, may you never doubt the impact you have on your students (or your friends for that matter!). <3

I love that there are happy endings. Thank-you so much for sharing this!

PS. i spy neilyoung in the background in that first photo ;)

Gracie said...

Wow Claire this is an amazing post and I'm so glad you were able to reconnect with him. I'm so in awe with what you do and the impact you make on your students lives :) This post made me smile soo big. x

Megan said...

I completely agree with Micaela's comment - this is such a happy ending and I think that sometimes people dont think that people who have been through hard times can have a happy ending - dont put there faith in their strength of spirit, this just proves that whole way of thinking wrong!

robayre said...

I have to agree with the comments above. What a great story. Moving and touching. I have to admit getting teary reading the last few lines of the poem. I hope he is still writing.

Lizelle said...

What a beautiful poem. So very touching. Students like him serve as constant reminders of why teaching is so very wonderful and worth the while <3

Lauren {at} Life.Love.Lauren said...

This is amazing. It pays to always give someone a chance...

Lesley said...

that poem made me cry. great story clairey.

Junior said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
smk053078 said...

Literally this post and story gave me the chills. It is crazy how social media can reconnect us with so many people. You are a true soul. And Ricardo was lucky to have met you...well, actually it looks like he made a pretty big impact on you as well. So awesome you guys got to see each other again and meet families.

Rick Martinez said...

Claire, it is because of humans like you that people like me can get to make a difference one day. Those four months that I spent taking your class were a true inspiration and I am so thankful for them. Meeting again after nine long years was a very memorable experience. Thank you and Matt for having us over for dinner on Monday. And thanks to everyone here for posting so many positive comments. I hope to see you again in Florida.

SMD @ lifeaccordingtosteph said...

His poem is amazing, and I say that with the full admission that while I have a degree in English Lit, poetry was never my favorite or my passion. He must have had a stellar teacher.

I love the power of social media to connect us to people we don't know, and also to people we knew long ago and lost touch with. So wonderful.

Lastly, I love that you did that program. What a difference you made to so many...have you read Wally Lamb's book about his experience in a prison writing program? That frequently brought me to tears throughout.

Dee Stephens said...

great story!

The Domestic Sweetheart said...

You have a fab blog! I'm a new GFC follower :)

Jessie said...

I just love you. That's all there is to it. <3

Kim @ Slice of Life said...

Today I just had a terrible day at work and reading this ... yes! this is why teachers teach!! so inspirational! :) thank you for sharing!

drollgirl said...

WHAT AN AWESOME STORY! i love it! so glad you were able to reconnect!!!!!!

Deals, Steals and Heels said...

i love this story. LOVE.

Brianna said...

This is an amazing story. I got chills reading it and his poem is just beautiful. You are making such a difference in people's lives and I hope you never forget the impact you have! Thank you for sharing this!! I truly look up to you lady, you are such a wonderful example of kindness!! xo

undomestic mama said...

This made me tear up. I forgot everything else I wanted to say because of it, but without a doubt you have made an impact like this on many many people's lives.

Amanda said...

What a seriously beautiful story, and a wonderfully written poem. Thank you so much for sharing this story with the blog world!

Leesh said...

Truly a touching story.

This is one of the times when I feel like facebook was put to good use.

Krystal said...

it is so awesome that he got in touch and you got to have dinner, that is so cool! i love stories like that...and thanks for sharing his poem :)

Chic 'n Cheap Living said...

What a beautiful story and poem! As much as we may rue social media at times, it is amazing that it connects us to people from so many different points in our lives.Thanks for sharing dear!

Chic 'n Cheap Living

love jenny xoxo said...

awesome story! love it!!! And the poem is beautiful <3

{love jenny xoxo}

Crazy Shenanigans-JMO said...

Yay! I love that this meeting happened! Are you back to teaching at the prison or still waiting to find out from that guard incident.

Faiza said...

tears. i love you. i love that your heart is so open and so full of amazing people who teach you, whom you have taught. tears.

Christina Monique said...

wow. what a wonderful beautiful friendship.

NYLON Girl said...

You are amazing. Have I told you that recently? :-) Love you for being so kind in a world that is often so cruel. xxx

Leeann @ Join the Gossip said...

That's so crazy that you were able to reconnect! I literally got chills reading this. You must feel so good knowing you are one of those people in this world making a real difference!